Humans are More than Just Animals: A Response to the New York Times

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By Dmitri Garlic, University of Texas A&M

Someone in the Clarifying Catholicism Groupme (contribute an essay and you too can join this distinguished brethren) shared this article from the New York Times. He said it was worth a read “but not because it’s good.” Taking the implied challenge, I read the article and found it as enlighteningly bad as his review implied. Truly, read it for yourself. It encapsulates the combination of arrogant assertion and sophomoric sophistication that you can expect from our journalist overlords.

I’m being a little unfair. The author, Crispin Sartwell, is a professor at Dickinson College and has written many philosophical defenses of Anarchism, including Against the State: An Introduction to Anarchist Political Theory and Political Aesthetics. If that interests you, I direct you to a catalogue of his works. I, on the other hand, have published nothing and write, when foppery and whim demands I do something productive, disorienting rants or the occasional bad haiku (90 seconds and 17 syllables and you too can call yourself a poet). Yet for all the achievement gap between us, I take back nothing I said in the first paragraph. This article is really that bad.

I will briefly summarize his argument:

  1. Thinking animals are inferior to humans due to their lack of reason can be used to justify humans treating animals poorly.
  2. The same reasoning can also be used to justify oppressing other humans who seem inferior
  3. Therefore, we should not concieve of ourselves as having superior faculties to animals.

Yes. This is really the main argument. Read the article for yourself. This basic kernel is padded out with sarcastic psychologizing of the great philosophers like Hobbes and Aristotle—which is a little hypocritical of me to point out, as I have been doing the same thing to Professor Sartwell. But, in my defense, I did (mostly) stop after my first paragraph. Sartwell’s psychoanalysis is the entire article.

To get back to the philosophy, Sartwell’s basic argument is that conceiving of things existing in a hierarchy justifies oppression, and therefore we should not conceive of things as existing in hierarchies. Therefore we should not think of humans as superior to animals. There are two problems with this argument: firstly that the main premise is not true, and secondly that the first premise does not prove the conclusion.

To deal with the first issue, nowhere does Sartwell justify his claim that hierarchies are innately oppressive. He hints at examples of hierarchies being oppressive, such as “species annihilation and environmental destruction” or “colonialism, slavery and racism.” But it does not follow that because houses sometimes catch on fire, they are teleologically oriented toward bursting into flames. Similarly, it does not follow that because some hierarchies are used to oppress, all hierarchies are inherently oppressive. St. Paul explains how this could be so: “If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact, God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be?” 1 Corinthians 17-19. God has ordained the various hierarchical divisions within his Church and the Church’s macrocosm, the universe, so that they can function together like the parts of the body. While some hierarchies might, because of human sinfulness, fail to live up to this ideal, it remains possible as anyone who has been a member of a healthy community can attest.

On the second point, even if we grant that hierarchies are innately oppressive, it does not follow that they do not exist. Why would it? Hierarchies are an obvious fact of existence. Even Sartwell acknowledges this when he implies that squirrels are “better at tree leaping” than us humans. Fish are better swimmers than us humans. Horses are better runners. Why should we not be surprised then when humans are better at reason?  In fact, and Sartwell gives no evidence to dispute this, I would argue that humans are the only one of the animals that exhibits abstract reasoning. If you grant, as Artistotle, Aquinas, and 3000 years of philosophers from Europe, the Islamic East, and China (if I have Confucius pegged correctly) have, that this faculty is higher than the physical faculties which the animals surpass us at, why wouldn’t you accept that humans are higher in the natural hierarchy (the Great Chain of Being as the Medievals called it)? As pointed out earlier, this need not justify cruelty. On the contrary, I would assert, and am willing to argue if challenged, that this means humans have a greater duty toward the animals on the principle of noblesse oblige.

In conclusion, hierarchies exist, humans are higher on that hierarchy than animals, and that does not mean we are justified in destroying the natural world. It seems to me that Sartwell’s only reason to deny this is a vague belief, which he takes as Gospel, that hierarchy is the root of all evil. To end on a penitential note in contrast with my opening, this New York Times article is a great example of the importance of humility. We should never assume our ideas are true and then, based on those ideas, patronize and psychoanalyze people who disagree with us. Even if those people are a bunch of dead philosophers or a successful, NYT published professor. In that spirit, I welcome refutations of my take on Sartwell’s article. Feel free to comment them below.

2 Responses

  1. The Catholic Church has consistently taught that man is to be a steward of creation, harkening back to the first few chapters of Genesis. I agree that Sartwell falls short of proving his premise that humans are just animals. The abuses perpetrated by humanity against creation are just that, abuses, not the rule. He fails to prove the alleged universal by citing a handful of particulars.

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